The promised land of the NBA is here, the summit of Mt. Playoffs. The two competitors, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, have been assembled in different ways. The Warriors, built through the draft with Curry, Thompson, Green and Barnes, are the pinnacle of efficiency, with league-leading offense and defense. They encounter the exceptionally lucky Cavaliers, who rely on the star power of LeBron James and the pull he has around the league (Love, Shumpert, Smith, Mozgov), built through trades and free agency, with the foundation of several years of lottery luck (Irving, Wiggins). While both teams have breezed through the first three rounds so far, the Finals is a different beast altogether.
The Road So Far
The Cavaliers finished second in the Eastern Conference with a 53-29 record, before sweeping both the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks, sandwiching a six-game series with the Chicago Bulls. Their road so far has been a challenge, as rumors of rifts in the locker room shrouded the early portion of the season, and David Blatt, with his team underperforming at 19-20, was under fire and in the hot seat. Enter general manager LeBron James, who endorsed a brilliant piece of tradesmanship, flipping malcontent Dion Waiters and bench warmers Alex Kirk and Lou Amundson for superb wing depth in Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, and then trading two future first round draft picks for big man help with Timofey Mozgov. The results were exceptional, winning 34 of their last 43 games to rocket up the standing to second in the conference.
However, they began to fall apart in the playoffs. Kevin Love, after playing some great ball late in the season, fell victim to an aggressive maneuver by Kelly Olynyk, where his shoulder was dislocated (whether it was deliberate or not is a different point). With Love out for the playoffs, Tristan Thompson was asked to step in and fill the void as the starting power forward. Many people thought it would not work, as Mozgov and Thompson don't provide much in the way of floor spacing Mozgov has a semi-reliable mid-range jumper, but Thompson has proven to be one of the more valuable players on this Cavaliers team, with his relentless rebounding giving his team countless second opportunities. With Kyrie Irving hobbled by knee tendinitis and foot issues, Matthew Dellavedova has also stepped up in a big way, burying the Bulls with a 19-point performance in Game 6 before averaging close to 10 points a game in the Conference Finals. Iman Shumpert has also made the starting 2-guard spot his own after filling in for the earlier-suspended J.R. Smith.
Despite all this adversity, most neutrals seem to want the Cavaliers to lose. There's always going to be the LeBron haters, but other narratives have surfaced in these playoffs, such as Dellavedova's playing style, Irving's "injuries" or otherwise, Smith's usual antics, and the general feeling of hilarity when one mentions Cleveland and championship in the same sentence. However, expect them to put up a good fight.
The Golden State Warriors were in the lottery as little as three years ago, and the mid-lottery at that, selecting Harrison Barnes 7th in 2012. He is one of their top draft picks which fill out their starting lineup, along with Stephen Curry (7th in 2009), Klay Thompson (11th in 2011) and Draymond Green (35th in 2012). Add to that other guys who have been top draft picks in the past from other teams, such as Andrew Bogut (1st in 2005), Andre Iguodala (9th in 2004) and Shaun Livingston (4th in 2004), and you get a very strong roster who can go nine deep comfortably. This is without mentioning former All-Star David Lee, who has pretty much fallen out of the rotation this season.
The reason for their success is largely on the shoulders of league MVP Stephen Curry, who has recovered from a nasty fall he suffered in the Rockets series after using Trevor Ariza as a hurdle. Curry is a very unique player, as his efficiency is unrivaled. Someone who shoots as much as he does, from the kind of spots he does, with his percentages is ridiculous. Add to that his assist numbers, and you have the prototypical perfect offensive guard. Klay Thompson's presence also helps, but he may be slightly underdone heading into this series after foolishly placing his head into the path of a flying Trevor Ariza knee (common denominator). In all seriousness, despite being cleared by club doctors to return that game (which he didn't), he later suffered symptoms of a concussion, including dizziness and vomiting, and was even unable to drive home per his dad Mychal. What makes Klay so special is that he has a sweet shooting stroke, obviously, but his 6-foot-7 frame allows him to post up most of his match ups, so if the Cavaliers try to hide a one-legged Irving on Thompson, Klay is posting up the tiny (since apparently 6-foot-3 is tiny in the NBA) Irving and exploiting that matchup.
Golden State is very good at exploiting mismatches, such as getting switches onto Curry from opposing big men, as well as creating space by drawing opposing bigs away from the basket to guard their stretch forwards in Barnes and Draymond Green. However, another integral part is their defense. The Warriors have the best defense in the league, and it often gets overshadowed by their superhuman offense. A large part of that is the tandem of Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, who both won places on the All-Defensive teams. Bogut is the prototypical shot blocker, and disrupts twice as many shots as he blocks. Draymond Green, on the other hand, can guard any position effectively, as shown against Houston when he muscled with Dwight Howard and forced him into mistakes, despite his size at 6-foot-7. Add to that capable wing defenders in Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston, who all possess great size at between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9, and you have a scary defense to lead the favorites in this series.
Likely Starting Lineups
Cavaliers: Irving, Shumpert, James, T.Thompson, Mozgov
Warriors: Curry, K.Thompson, Barnes, Green, Bogut
Cavaliers: Dellavedova, Smith, Jones
Warriors: Iguodala, Livingston, Barbosa, Speights/Ezeli (depending on Speights' injury)
Game 1: CLE @ GSW 9PM ET June 4
Game 2: CLE @ GSW 8PM ET June 7
Game 3: GSW @ CLE 9PM ET June 9
Game 4: GSW @ CLE 9PM ET June 11
Game 5: CLE @ GSW*
Game 6: GSW @ CLE*
Game 7: CLE @ GSW*
*Games 5, 6 & 7 if necessary, yet to be scheduled.
All games on ABC and ESPN.
I think the Warriors will get over the hump, but it will be closer than people think. I'll say Warriors in 7, with Stephen Curry as the Finals MVP. Cleveland needs its other guys (Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith and Thompson) to continue their strong play to have a chance, plus a healthy (as possible) Irving to supplement LeBron James.